The Irony of Manifest Destiny

The Irony of Manifest DestinyIn The Irony of Manifest Destiny, William Pfaff argues for a return to realpolitik—basing our foreign policy on our own interests rather than an ideology of “improving” the rest of the world. I am torn on this question, as I dare say most people are. On one hand, I really do hate the massive amount of injustice that I see throughout the world. I hate the explicit sexism throughout the world. And left to their own devices, it seems the one thing you can count on humans to do is to go to war with each other. On the other hand, I know that such an endeavor is hopeless.

Even more than this, there is an assumption at the base of our ideological foreign policy that I always argue against: the end of history. Underlying conservative thinking is always that wherever we are is basically the destination of our historical journey. This kind of thinking indicates that we may be rough around the edges, but otherwise we are perfect. And it is only people who think they are pretty much perfect who can rightly tell everyone else how to live. I don’t like people like that. Nations like that are a good deal worse.

But I can go back and forth on this issue. For example, the ideological imperialism of the Romans and of Napoleon Bonaparte had good and long lasting consequences. Just the same, I cannot bring to mind any American imperialism with similarly good consequences, unless we count the Marshall Plan. But we shouldn’t count it. The question is not whether Americans have fundamentally decent instincts; it is whether we can improve the world by force.

Pfaff makes the case against “helpful” imperialism in a couple of paragraphs toward the end of the book:

A policy of nonintervention would rely heavily on diplomacy and analytical intelligence, with particular attention to history, since nearly all serious problems among nations are recurrent or have important recurring elements in them. Current crises concerning Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine-Israel all have origins in the Eurpoean imperial systems, and their dismantlement in the aftermath of the twentieth century’s totalitarian wars. They are the legacy or in a sense the residue of the history of the last century, and their resolution must be sought in terms of that experience, a fact generally ignored in American political and press references to history—which, despite the frequent polemical citation of historical “lessons,” is usually poorly know…

Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solutions by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia and no Khmer Rouge genocide. Laos and its tribal peoples would have been spared their ordeal.

I find these arguments very compelling. The only counter argument to them is to point our atrocities where everyone wants to help: Darfur and Rwanda, for example. Pfaff counters that there is nothing in his prescription that stops international efforts at policing and so forth. However, he notes that even still, much care must be taken to assure that more good than bad is done.

If you are at all interested in foreign policy and especially the abuses of the Bush Jr years, I highly recommend reading The Irony of Manifest Destiny. It will make you think, even if it doesn’t provide final answers.

Morning Music: Françoise Hardy

Françoise HardySince I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)

But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.

John Hurt: a Personal View

John HurtI was extremely sad to learn that legendary actor John Hurt died last week. The announcement came on Friday, but he actually died Wednesday, 25 January 2017. I assume it was due to pancreatic cancer, which he was diagnosed with a year and a half ago. But none of the reporting I’ve read has indicated a cause of death. I’m not linking to anything because even the best coverage gives what I think of as a skewed view of his career.

For most Americans, John Hurt is known for one part: Kane in Alien. Admittedly, he is central to the most memorable scene: Kane is with a crew eating a meal when he goes into convulsions, ending in the immature alien bursting out of his stomach. Incredibly cool, but hardly a star part. To me, the only important thing about the part was that Hurt played a huge diversity of roles in a great many different kinds of films. The Internet Movie Database lists 204 films that he was in. And he wasn’t a character actor. He was the star of many of those films.

Discovering John Hurt

I first noticed him in 1979, while I was in high school. He played Raskolnikov in a PBS miniseries of Crime and Punishment. Shortly after that, I saw him play Caligula in I, Claudius. I was blown away, “This is the same actor?!” At that point, I would watch anything that he was in. And it wasn’t always pleasant. Neither Night Crossing nor Partners (both in 1982) were compelling films. But he was great in both.

But he was in a lot of films that were deserving of his talent. An obvious one that comes to mind in The Elephant Man, where he played John Merrick (Joseph was the real Merrick’s first name). At the time and to this day, I think he was robbed of the Academy Award. It was given to Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, proving yet again that Hollywood can’t appreciate subtlety in acting (not that I thought De Niro was bad).

The other parts that come easily to mind are Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (1975), Max in Midnight Express (1978), Braddock in The Hit (1984), Stephen Ward in Scandal (1989), and, of course, his outstanding performance in Krapp’s Last Tape (2001). There are many more — roles both small and large. I don’t believe a movie ever failed to be better because of his participation.

Winston Smith

But to me, John Hurt will always be Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (1984). I had just read the book for the first time when I first saw it. It’s incredibly rare that a film so perfectly captures the feel of a book. But even more, John Hurt wasn’t so much playing Smith as being him. I wanted to find a nice scene with Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton, but the pleasant ones from earlier in the film were too short. This one from the very end is brilliant with both of them completely defeated:

I didn’t know John Hurt. But I’m still sad that he’s gone, even with all the fine work that he left us. I didn’t particularly care when Michael Jackson died or Prince. Nor Carrie Fisher and Mary Tyler Moore, who died on the same day. But John Hurt was something special — at least to me.

The Cat from Outer Space Review and Analysis

The Cat from Outer SpaceThe Cat From Outer Space is a 1978 Disney film, very much like many other Disney features from that period spanning The Shaggy Dog in 1959 through to The Love Bug in 1968 to three direct sequels culminating in a short-live 1982 television series. (Ultimately, there was the made-for-television The Love Bug in 1997, starring Bruce Campbell, and then the theatrically released Herbie: Fully Loaded in 2005 starring Lindsay Lohan.) These are formulaic films, produced on the cheap (except for the Lohan film) for an audience that was easily pleased. So it may come as something of a surprise that The Cat From Outer Space was really quite a good film.

Of course, in their way, they all were. They all starred excellent actors. Their scripts were written by very competent comedy writers. There’s nothing to impress a cinephile. But they were professional productions that created exactly what they set out to. Even the special effects were, for their time, quite good. On that front, I’d certainly rather watch The Absent-Minded Professor than North by Northwest.

Such “Nice” Films

The only problem with these kinds of films is that they are so very determined not to offend. The whole group of films (and there were a great many more than I’ve mentioned), was parodied brilliantly in Matinee as “The Shook Up Shopping Cart.” In it, Uncle Cedric is a shopping cart. In one minute of screen time, we see all the cliches: the inexplicable but undeniable character, the 1950s social mores, the clueless bad guys, the tired slapstick, and absolutely no moment when any of the protagonists feel like they are in any danger.

Just the same, the other parody in Matinee — “Mantz” — isn’t really any more threatening. It’s all good old fashioned American morality. Consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, where Ed Wood sets up an interesting premise: aliens have come to destroy humanity because we are on the verge of creating a bomb that will destroy the universe. The happy ending of this would be that the humans are destroyed. But let’s give Wood credit: he understood what he was saying, but he also understood that audiences wouldn’t stand for the proper ending.

I Never Did Like ET

While watching The Cat From Outer Space, I couldn’t help but compare it to ET the Extra-Terrestrial — made just four years later. Now I know, everyone is supposed to love the film. “ET phone home” and all. But as I sat in the theater at 18 years old, my main reaction was boredom. It had one of those plots that make you feel dragged through the mud. I’m not complaining that it was predictable — that’s given. But it took itself so seriously. It’s a silly film, but it was directed like it was Schindler’s List (which actually had more genuine laughs in it).

So what?! They create a different looking space alien and we’re supposed to think it is any more real? ET is every bit as silly as The Cat From Outer Space. The problem is that the people who made ET didn’t realize that. So it was really nice to sit down and watch Cat, which is totally without pretense. It’s just a silly comedy with a cat: That Darn Cat! with the wonderful addition of a some gentle ribbing of the Cold War mentality of the 1950s.

(One repeated joke is that the general gives a command to the captain. The captain gives the command to the lieutenant. And the lieutenant gives the command to the sergeant — played by Ronnie Schell, who also provides the voice of Jake the cat. Presumably, the sergeant is the only one who does anything. Everyone else just “delegates.”)

The Cat From Outer Space Is a Fine Film

The cast is really good: Ken Berry, Sandy Duncan, McLean Stevenson, Roddy McDowall, and Harry Morgan. It’s also filled with a bunch of great character actors — notably Hans Conried, Jesse White, and William Prince. There was also a brief appearance by Alan “Willlburrr” Young. Really, you could just set them all in a room and have them talk and it would be entertaining — even without a cat with a cool collar.

In it’s way, it’s a perfect film. Anyone who decides to rent or buy The Cat From Outer Space will be getting exactly what they expect. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have changed a few of things. Although the film tries hard, and most succeeds, at given human women their due, it rather fails in the world of cats. The ending goes on for far too long. And the epilogue is totally without merit (even if it does feature Sorrell “Boss Hogg” Booke). But none of that is surprising given that it is a Disney film about a cat from outer space.

What Cervantes Wanted to Do With Don Quixote

CervantesThis period produced one great work of literature that ranks ahead of all others. It is the tale of Don Quixote de la Mancha, authored in two parts by Miguel Cervantes. In our literary canon, the novel has come to dominate the other forms in modern times. And with respect to the novel we can say, “In the beginning was Cervantes.” The genre springs from his work. And even today, after four hundred years, how many novels can begin to compete with this one? It is a work of amazing flexibility; it piles layer upon layer of meaning. It can be studied in universities and performed in Broadway musicals. Cervantes’s genius was to be simultaneously great, complex, subtle, and yet packed with immediate popular appeal. Cervantes fills a great panorama and he perfects the art of the tragicomedy. What seems at first blush a farce, a comic send-up, turns into a work filled with pain, loss, horror and introspection. What seems at first shallow soon emerges, especially in the second part, as a work of great philosophical depth; of wit and profound and timeless wisdom.

I have read Don Quixote three times in my life; the last time just now. On each reading, I felt Don Quixote said something to me about life and the times in which I lived. “Don’t be consumed in the quest for needful things,” it said, “the real quest leads inward. Beware of the vanities of the world, the frivolities of human existence. And remember wherever your life takes you, and whatever love you may seek from time to time, the need for kindness and respect, the essential qualities which make human life worth living. Life will bring pain and hardship, but have the disposition to be modest, to learn, to be kind and the edge will come off.” Cervantes wants to entertain his readers; but he also wants to reshape them.

–Scott Horton
Cervantes’s Golden Age

State Department Departure: Evil, Incompetent, or Both

State Department ResignationsI don’t want to write about politics, but I feel I have something of a civic duty to say something at this point. Trump has been president just one week and it’s been even worse than I feared. I no longer think that he couldn’t possibly be worse than Mike Pence, except that he and everyone around him seem to be almost completely unqualified to do their work at the most basic level of competence.

Take yesterday’s story about the State Department resignations, Departure of Top State Officials Fuels Concerns About Talent Loss. Apparently, all political appointees submit their resignations when a new administration comes in. But standard practice is that the new administration refuses those resignations to allow for continuity. But not the Trump administration. No, it just accepted them.

Most of the Government Doesn’t Change

What’s important to remember here is that a government is not just our elected officials. In fact, it is just the visible tip of the iceberg. As you may know, roughly 90% of an iceberg is below the water. (You can see the same thing by dropping a cube of ice into a glass of water.) The “under water” part of the government is made up of all the civil servants who keep the country moving regardless of administration: Democratic or Republican, good or bad.

It is this make-up of government that keeps countries stable. It is the same way in every developed nation. Democracy is about a whole lot more than voting. Voting doesn’t even matter if you don’t have some degree of stability. We quite simply don’t have the time to switch from a social democratic dream to a libertarian nightmare and back every eight years. So over more than 200 years, we’ve developed this largest part of the government that is not partisan. And it is critically important. It’s why we have better lives than the people in many other countries.

(Yes libertarians, I know. If there wasn’t any government, then everyone would have peace and prosperity. The whole thing wouldn’t collapse into a kind of Neuromancer-type dystopia where corporations rule us. Nor would it cause the rise of a ruthless ruler like Robert Mugabe. The only problem with all that is that I’m spending all my “believe” energy keeping Tinker Bell alive. So I can’t wish your particular fantasy into existence. Sorry.)

Ignorant Contempt for Government

But in order for such a government to work, everyone has to accept it. And that has generally been the case. But certainly over the last 40 years, I’ve seen a rise in people who have what I can only term “glibertarian” views toward government. They aren’t libertarian, because they don’t think about it enough to be. Instead, they have a vague hatred of the government, even though they don’t have a clue about all the really important things that the government does (under Republicans and Democrats alike) to keep them safe and even reasonably happy. And so it comes to this.

Now we have a man in the White House who is the perfect fulfillment of this kind of ignorant resentment. He’s an authoritarian. Read Michael Hiltzik for just one side of that, Trump Is at War With Science and Knowledge, and That Should Terrify You. Yet he’s also totally incompetent. That brings us back to those State Department resignations.

What’s Up With the Resignations?

I don’t know if they are a sign of Trump’s authoritarianism or his incompetence. Or maybe it is both. The truth is, he could do a good old Stalin-style house cleaning at any time. Now, he actually makes the job that Rex Tillerson is going to do (For Exxon or the US? It’s not clear.) harder. Now these positions have to be filled.

The whole thing makes me very worried. Yochi Dreazen reported the truth, The Worst Things You’ll Read About Trump Come From His Own Aides. But does it matter that our very own Stalin is incompetent? Authoritarians are not known for being competent about anything — except staying in power. I’m not sure Trump will manage even that. And that would give us Mike Pence, which, hard as it is to say, would probably be the best thing for this country.

A Brief History of American International Pictures

The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film - American International PicturesProbably the most important company in this book is American International Pictures (AIP). Founded in 1954 as American Releasing Corporation (ARC) by Samuel Z Arkoff and the late James Nicholson, AIP (1956-1980) defined the postwar youth-oriented feature. Shortly after its 25th aniversary, the company was purchased by outsiders and renamed Filmways. Soon thereafter, disengaged from its exploitative past, but recent releases like Amityville 3-D indicate that its AIP origins linger.

During its heyday, AIP had several subsidiaries. Filmgroup made some of the most offbeat features (often produced or directed by AIP standby Roger Corman). By the late 60s more lurid features dealing with sex and drugs were released by Trans-American. During the 70s, Hallmark released the most shocking of the (mostly European) horror acquisitions. AIP-TV released dozens of Mexican, Japanese, and European films directly to American television. It also sometimes made extremely cheap features to be sold as part of TV package deals.

—Michael Weldon
The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

The Long Goodbye Review and Analysis

The Long GoodbyeWould you kill your best friend?

This is a question I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about because of the film The Long Goodbye. It does ask you to answer that question (the novel does not). And the question fascinates me because loyalty is really important to me. That may seem odd, since I am anti-tribal. But that’s not really that difficult to explain. Tribalism is about labels, not actual bonds. Friendship is, for me anyway, about love.

Now, I can’t say that I would kill my best friend, because I don’t endorse that under any circumstances. But I would rollover on my best friend, which is ultimately the same thing: the abandonment of loyalty.

Marlowe Makes the Film

The truth is that The Long Goodbye is something of a mess of a film. Yet I’ve always loved it. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I feel much like Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in it. He’s a man out of time. He’s constantly interacting with a world that makes no sense to him. But he has what amounts to a mantra, “It’s okay with me.” Note his amused indifference to his young women neighbors. When Harry (David Arkin) says he thinks their naked stretching exercises indicates that they are lesbians, Marlowe says, “They’re just doing yoga.” What? “I don’t know what it is, but it’s yoga.”

What’s critical in The Long Goodbye is that Marlowe knows he doesn’t fit in, but everyone else thinks they have him completely pegged. It’s only Wade (Sterling Hayden) who thinks he’s odd, and that’s simply because the two of them suspect each other. (Marlowe thinks Wade killed Terry Lennox’s wife, and Wade thinks Marlowe is having an affair with his own.) Everyone else in the film plays him for a fool. Of course, he isn’t a fool. He’s just from a different time.

When People Peg You — Wrong

I had an experience recently that made me feel much the same way. I was running my errands — walking from the library to the Target — and these two young women singled me out to ask if I had a light. There were a lot of other people around, but I was the one they picked out. This is not all that uncommon, but the example was so stark that I couldn’t pass it off as people simply asking anyone nearby. It was the first time that it became clear to me that people see me as someone at the margins of society — a smoker, drug addict, whatever.

I’m well aware that I don’t fit in. But I thought that I came off as simply eccentric — absent-minded professor who doesn’t care what he wears or if his hair is combed. I wanted to yell at the young women, “Wrong stereotype!” But they have to be forgiven. Whereas Marlowe dresses for his stereotype, I give decidedly mixed signals — usually wearing jeans, a CAT hoodie, and a badly faded San Francisco Giants baseball cap. And even as the distracted intellectual that I am, there is little continuity — I’m as likely to be watching an old B horror film as I am a new translation of the Aeneid.

The Long Goodbye

But I do have a strict (some would say rigid) moral sense. Like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, “It’s okay with me” — until it isn’t. And that’s what makes the ending of the film so powerful. For Marlowe, being liberal about the universe he finds himself in is not really a choice; there is no other universe that he can live in. Naked girls next door make no sense, so he has a cat. But we all have limits, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

In The Long Goodbye, that limit is when your best friend savagely beats his wife to death. And after that, Marlowe walks away, playing the harmonica and dancing with a woman on the street. “It’s okay with me.”

District 13 Review and Analysis

District 13When I reviewed Bloody Mallory, commenter Marc wrote, “While we’re on the subject of ‘silly French movies that are still a lot of fun to watch,’ permit me to recommend Banlieue 13.” A banlieue is basically a suburban area. So in the English speaking world, the film is known as District 13. It was released in 2004 and it stars two stunt men and a former female porn actor. I mention that as a compliment. First, it speaks well of the producers to cast such people. And watching it before I knew that, I had assumed they were all just regular actors — although with the men having training.

The two lead actors, David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli, are practitioners of Parkour (or close enough) — that seemingly gravity-defying style of running and jumping that isn’t that different from the wire work in The Matrix. There are two set pieces in the film with this: the first with just Belle and the second with both of them. These go along with such fast-paced editing (thanks, I assume, to director Pierre Morel) that it brought on actual motion sickness in me. I quickly got used to what was happening on the screen, and the nausea went away. But still, it was pretty intense. And it speaks well of a film that it can be that powerful — even if for a short period of time.

At this point, I suppose Parkour is a little tired. It was used in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. By the time something shows up in a James Bond film, it’s pretty much dead. But I still find it fascinating. It’s like watching an insect move. So I think the movie is worth watching just on that front.

District 13′s Plot

It’s also interesting if you look at it as an allegory of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That’s because the story is about how the power elite of Paris wall off District 13 because it is poor and filled with gangs and so on. Things just get worse as a result of that, where the people inside live in a kind of Mad Max work. And it is more and more of a political problem for the people outside. But I kind of doubt there was a great deal of thought given to this. The film is pretty clearly an homage to Escape From New York — although the substantial plot differences make it a far more interesting story.

The major problem with the District 13 is that when the action sequences aren’t taking place, the film is downright didactic. I don’t mean that it is trying to teach us how to be good human beings; I mean it is trying to teach us what the plot is. The writers Luc Besson (!) and Bibi Naceri didn’t take the time to show us what the action was about; they just tell us through dialog that is often unrelenting — particularly after Belle and Raffaelli team up.

It Works

All the same, it’s an enjoyable film. It skirts most of the action film cliches that are in every Hollywood blockbuster. A good example of this is that the hero must have some fateful confrontation with the alpha villain at the end. Not so here. Instead, the beta villain simply allows his gang to kill the alpha villain. And then it turns out that the beta villain is, all things considered, pretty reasonable (which we expected, largely to a great performance by Tony D’Amario). None of this should come as a surprise to fans of Luc Besson’s classic Léon: The Professional.

District 13 is certainly not a great film — or even an especially interesting one. But it’s entertaining. It’s story is far more compelling than most action films. And the action sequences themselves are as good as they get. If you’re interested in this kind of film, I don’t see how you can miss with it. And if it isn’t your kind of film, it’s far more bearable than most other action films.


I had mentioned in my review of Bloody Mallory that the English dubbing was very bad and that you really did have watch the film in its original French. That’s not true for District 13. The dubbing is quite good both in terms of technology and acting. The French voice acting is notably better. But the English voice acting is good, and it doesn’t spoil the film.

Why the Neolithics Did So Much Trepanning

TrepanningMore than 1500 trephined skulls have been uncovered throughout the world, from Europe and Scandinavia to North America, from Russia and China to South America (particularly in Peru). Most reported series show that from 5% to 10% of all skulls found from the Neolithic period have been trephined with single or multiple skull openings of various sizes. Many of the skulls show evidence of fractures. In some cases the operations were incomplete, as if the patients suddenly woke up and terminated the procedure. Some skull openings showed evidence of healing, meaning the patients survived the operations; others did not. In these latter cases it is impossible to determine if the patients were already (or recently) dead or whether the patients died soon after the procedure. Trepanations were performed in children as well as adults and in both males and females. The majority of trephinations, though, have been found in adult males…

Neolithic man was a hunter and his life experience revolved around this activity. Cave dwelling paintings also testify to this phenomenon. Consequently, he was very aware of hunting and war injuries. Neolithic man noticed, for example, that penetrating injuries to the chest and abdomen were usually fatal to man and animal. Likewise, massive blunt head injuries were invariably lethal. Nevertheless, blunt injuries to the head, if not massive, were not invariably fatal. With mild blows to the head, man or animal could be knocked down briefly and then get up and run. At other times, a man could be left for “dead” in the back of the cave, but after a period of time, he could “miraculously” recover and become “undead.” It was only with head injuries that primitive man noted that this phenomenon took place — namely suddenly becoming “dead” after an injury and then “undead.” Or, as we would describe it, that a head injury caused a momentary loss of consciousness (LOC), as in a concussion, or a more prolonged LOC, as in a cerebral or brainstem contusion — and then recover as the cerebral edema subsided and neural circuits were reestablished.

Of course, primitive man did not understand the pathophysiology involved. For the Stone Age man, there was also no awareness of the inevitability of death and no recognized mortality as part and parcel of the human condition. Diseases, pain and suffering, and death took place as a result of sorcery, evil spirits, or some other supernaturalistic intervention. People could become gradually “dead” from an illness or injury and then become “undead” because of some phenomenon. In the case of injuries, these conditions were caused by observed specific events, such as penetrating injuries or serious blows. These… did not occur randomly. Such was also the case with becoming “dead” and “undead,” and the primitive surgeon of Neolithic times understandably reasoned that he could also do something to bring back to life those individuals essential to the survival of the group.

Observing that small injuries to the head, more frequently than other injuries, resulted in “dying” and “undying” (ie, spontaneous recovery), they must, according to Prioreschi, come to believe that “something in the head had to do with undying.” More blows would not accomplish the ritual, but an opening in the head, trephination, could be “the activating element,” the act that could allow the demon to leave the body or the good spirit to enter it, for the necessary “undying” process to take place. If deities had to enter or leave the head, the opening had to be sufficiently large.

Prioreschi writes: “It would appear that he was trying to recall to life people who had died (or were dying) without wounds (or with minor ones), in other words, people affected with diseases and people whose small wounds were not so serious as to prevent ‘undying’…” Incomplete trepanations, as mentioned previously, are explained, not because the patients died during the procedure, but because of patients waking up and interrupting the procedure by suddenly becoming “undead.”

–Miguel A Faria
Neolithic Trepanation Decoded — A Unifying Hypothesis

Conservative Mum: Portrait of a Serial Troll

Conservative Mum: Artist's RenderingYesterday morning, I started getting a series of tweets from someone calling themselves Conservative Mum — who I assume is who she says she is. I ignored the first one. It was a link to Elizabeth’s most recent post about the Phoenix Women’s March. Conservative Mum added, “What a pathetic show of stupidity- NOTHING was stolen from you triggered freaks.” It’s bizarre. What does the march, much less the article have to do with anything stolen? And “triggered freaks” just scream, “I listen to hate radio! I never talk to actual liberals except to yell at them!” I know the type.

But I looked on her main page. The header is of a gaudy sunset with the sun’s light as God and “BLESS YOU” display (but cropped because Conservative Mum has important trolling to do and can’t be bothered to set up her page properly. The point is clear: she is Real Christian™. But in case you were wondering, instead of a picture of her, there was an image that tells us, “The only Difference Between a Radical and a Moderate Muslim is… The distance they place between themselves and the bomb..” (All formatting errors in original.) It is a terrible crop of a cartoon stolen from Conservative Papers.

Can you feel the Christian the love, brothers and sisters?! Can I get an “amen”?! Here is her Twitter description in full, exactly as it is formatted:

Historian/Archeology/Ancient Lit. Mum of 3, Libs don’t waste your Alinsky spew on me-Christian does NOT =Won’t fight tooth & nail against EVIL List=BLOCK

Conservative Mum: American, British, or Professional Troll?

There is no location listed, but she claims to be an America. She does, however, use words like “mum” and “arse” that are more associated with the British. This could certainly be an indication that Conservative Mum is a professional troll, but I think it is more likely just some woman who immigrated here. There are two obvious possibilities. Some people leave the UK because they think it is too liberal (socialist). Also: immigrants to this country are often trapped by conservative rhetoric, because it does sound good. The problem is that the Republican Party is not at all interested in what they claim to be interested in.

Twitter Trolling Expands

Despite my silence on her first tweet, she couldn’t leave it alone. I soon got this one:

I don’t care that there are people out there who hate me or think whatever about me. One thing that age has brought is a very clear sense of who I am. I’m not stupid and I’m not insane. But I don’t care that Conservative Mum thinks I am. Just the same, I’m not keen on such people wasting my time. So I tweeted back to her far more politely than she deserved, “What did I ever do to you? Did I make you visit my site? Did I tweet insults at you? Please leave me out of your trolling.” Instead of simply going on her merry, she tweeted back:

My Disgusting Lies

That made me a bit angry. What disgusting lies am I putting out there? This wasn’t a conversation, it was a rage therapy session for this pathetic woman. I tweeted back to her, “By your tweets, you’re a vile human being. I feel that Christian love radiating from you.” And then I blocked her. But she followed up with this, obviously not intended for me but just to get her rage out:

Real Men

This is actually why I am writing about this. I know what she means by “pussified.” She likely thinks it the ultimate insult. But what she’s clearly thinking is that “real” men are of the type so insightfully and brilliantly analyzed by David Futrelle. To me, the archetypes of real American manhood are Rick in Casablanca and Jake in The Sun Also Rises. These are men who are comfortable with themselves. They aren’t men who run around whining that they could get a girlfriend if only the feminazis hadn’t poisoned modern women.

I happen to be a rather typical male myself — much more Jake and Rick — but even more like Don Quixote, having something of an insane chivalric code that I live by. What I most definitely don’t share with the stereotype of the Real American Man™ is any need to prove my manliness. Because Rick, Jake, or anyone else doesn’t define what it is to be real man; I do; and so does every other man who is confident enough to be himself and not some meaningless stereotype.

The Hollow Life of Conservative Mum

I am truly sorry for Conservative Mum. She’s a Trump supporter. Good for her! But instead of being happy that her candidate won the election, her twitter feed is filled with bile. If you can’t be happy in triumph, when can you be happy? Of course, I’m sure that Conservative Mum would tell me she is happy — she’s just fighting the good fight, “Christian doesn’t mean backing down to feral evils”! But I don’t buy that. I analyze because it is my nature. She trolls because she has found a voice. The problem is, it is such a cliche that it can’t possibly be authentic.

Lou Reed wrote the following about heroin addiction, but it applies just as well to trolling addiction:

You know, some people got no choice, and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own. So the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why they follow it. You know, it’s called bad luck.

It Takes More Than 140 Characters

Bad luck indeed. Conservative Mum would be welcome to comment here. But I doubt she would have any more to say than the slogans and bile that fit so well in 140 characters. Two references to Saul Alinsky! His name has only showed up 3 times in 8,000 articles on this site. And every time his name did come up, it was in reference to conservatives’ obsession with him. I’ve never read Rules for Radicals. Of course, I’m sure Conservative Mum hasn’t either. Alinsky is just her favorite liberal boogeyman. What a sad, sad tiny world to live in where you don’t even know what it is you’re so terrified of.

But you know: some trolls have no choice…

The Four Ways to Pronounce Banal

Banal - Not That I'm Saying This Art Is - You DecideAs you may have suspected recently, I spent an hour or so grazing on The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. I do this a lot. It’s what passes for fun in my life. It’s great to learn new things. But the big thing I learned was that, contrary to what I thought, I do not pronounce the word “banal” in the most common way.

In addition to learning this, I found out that there are four ways — Four ways! — that people do or have recently pronounced this word. This may seem weird to you, but I have been in a few conversations with people who were angry about my pronunciation. This is, of course, the same old same old, “My grammar school teacher taught me this and so I know it’s right!” Note: they never admit this, but I know rules-based thinking when I see it. As Fowler said of the split infinitive, “They see no reason why they should not [split an infinitive] (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point)…”

I am not here to tell you how you should pronounce “banal.” I am here simply to share the wondrousness that we English speakers would come up with four ways to pronounce a very simple, two-syllable, word. It never occurred to me. I always thought there were just two. I hope you are as excited as I am to get started.

Fowler on “Banal”

Back in 1926, H W Fowler had a very dim view of this word and the noun version, banality:

These are literary critics’ words, imported from France by a class of writers whose jaded taste relishes novel or imposing jargon. In French they have had a continuous history and a natural development from their original to their present sense; in English they have not, and we accordingly remain conscious that they are exotics. With common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and other English words, to choose among, we certainly do not need them.

Gowers’ Pronunciation

Ouch! But times change. When Ernest Gowers updated Modern English Usage in 1965, he was much more kind to it. Originally, Fowler didn’t even provide an pronunciation. So when American Heritage claims, “Sixty years ago, H W Fowler recommended the pronunciation (ban’-el), rhyming with panel…” it was wrong. It was Gowers who recommended that, as far as I can tell. But I think they are right that no one pronounces it that way today. Certainly, no one of their usage panel did.

The Most Common Banal

A full 58 percent of the people on the usage page chose the pronunciation (bə-‘nal), which rhymes with canal. Can this be true? I don’t ever recall hearing anyone pronounce the word in this way. It is possible that the writers on the usage panel are not that familiar with the details of pronunciation lingo. I know that I always have to look up what the symbols mean on those rare occasions that I really want to know how a word is pronounced.

Then again, I’m a left coast guy. I’ve spent my whole life living at various spots between San Francisco and Seattle. And maybe my ignorance of this pronunciation is a function of that. But I doubt that. David Foster Wallace pronounced the word as I do, and he was raised in Illinois. Note: this can’t be a British thing, because American Heritage deals only with American English.

The Annoying One

When people argue with me over the pronunciation, they like (bā’-nəl), which rhymes with anal. A full 28 percent of the usage panel prefers this pronunciation. That was, of course, over a decade ago, and by my experience, it has been losing ground. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that it does sound like anal. But more important to me is that the hard-a just doesn’t seem banal to me.

Regardless, I’ve never commented on someone pronouncing banal this way. It’s always the other way around. I say it the “wrong” way and am instructed about the right way to say it, which they know because Moses Mrs Johnston told them in the fourth grade.

My Banal

Now we come to the way that I pronounce banal: bə-‘näl, which doesn’t really rhyme with any word, but sounds kind of like the end of Senegal. It is without a doubt the most common way that I hear people pronounce it. Yet only 13 percent of the usage panel prefers it.

It could be that I think this pronunciation of banal is most common because it is mine, and I’m not that accurate at hearing language. So the most common one sounds to me like mine. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

Any Way to Banal

What’s fascinating about this word is that no one can decide. So everything is okay. And I’ve only mentioned the four major contenders. There are a couple of other minor variations. So say it how ever you want.

But Fowler did make a good point almost a century ago: do we really need this word when we have common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and so many more? Maybe. I’m not sure that there is any other word that is quite the same. “Trite” is probably closest, but it doesn’t quite capture of the emotional “meh” that “banal” provides.